Free way to recycle the 'unrecyclable', from contact lenses to crisp packets

Most of us have mastered the art of sorting and recycling our household waste. But what about those annoying items that can't be collected and recycled by your local council? From crisp packets to contact lenses, there are (literally) tons of items we still throw in the rubbish bin.

Come here from the weekly email? This is just one of our eight PlanetSaving tips – also see: Get cash for junk | Sell old mobiles | 13 ways to use less plastic AND save cash | How to bag FREE beauty products | H&M £5 off £25 for recycling | Coffee cup trick | 12 ways to STOP food-and-drink waste

A company called Terracycle partners with big brands to offer a free way to recycle lots of different items that can't be chucked in your household recycling bin. For example, it's joined forces with Colgate to recycle toothbrushes, empty toothpaste tubes or electric toothbrush heads, and with Ella's Kitchen to recycle baby food pouches.

You can either drop items off at a location near you or in some cases simply post them off for free. And while strictly speaking this is more about PlanetSaving than MoneySaving, you might even be able to earn some cash for charity at the same time...

What 'unrecyclable' products can I recycle for free?

When you click through to the site you'll notice that most of the categories of things you can recycle are sponsored by companies, such as Acuvue and Febreze. But don't let that put you off – most categories will let you recycle products from other brands too.

Currently you can recycle any brand in the following categories:

There are also some categories which only accept specific brands:

Before storing these items up for a trip to a Terracycle drop-off point though, it's worth checking your local recycling restrictions to see if any of the above are already accepted. For example, many councils will accept Febreze aerosols but not biscuit wrappers.

How does Terracycle work?

To see what the options are for recycling any given item, simply select the correct category from its list.

For most items, you'll need to find a drop-off location near you – there are hundreds across the UK, including schools, churches, post offices, community centres and newsagents. To find your nearest, click on the map to see locations accepting those items. It will also show you the opening times.

If you can't find one nearby, you could set one up yourself. You'll need to be at least five miles from an existing drop-off location, and if you're collecting at your home, you'll need to provide a collection point outside that's accessible 24/7, eg, a dedicated wheelie bin.

Some items can be posted instead – if this is an option, there will be posting instructions when you select a category. For example, in the baby food pouches category it says:

"When you want to post a shipment, download a free UPS label from your account, attach it to your shipment and then simply order a free pick-up via UPS by calling 03457 877 877 or book a collection online here. UPS will then collect from your location. You can also drop-off your parcel at your closest UPS drop-off point."

Most drop-off points accept multiple categories, eg, Heswall Primary School in Merseyside  accepts personal care products, baby food pouches, biscuit wrappers and cleaning product packaging. But some only accept categories specific to their business, eg, dentist surgeries  and opticians.

What happens to the items I recycle?

Well, they're recycled... The truth is, much of what we consider 'unrecyclable' actually isn't impossible to recycle, it's just less widely collected and harder to recycle.

With Terracycle, it varies by item, but once collected, most products are separated by type, cleaned and turned into plastic pellets, granules or 'hard plastic' to make new recycled products. These can include fence posts, benches, signs and table tops.

Terracycle makes its money by selling on the processed materials to businesses which can use them to make new products. It also sells some 'upcycled' products of its own, such as bags and phone cases made from recycled material.

Charities and schools benefit too

This isn't just about saving the environment. As an added bonus, your recycling can also earn points which can be turned into cash for charities or schools. If you drop your recycling off, it's the co-ordinator of that location who decides where the points go. If you're collecting the recycling yourself and posting it off, you get to choose the charity/school.

See this very much as an added bonus rather than a reason to use this service, as each Terracycle point is worth 1p, and in most cases you'll need to do quite a lot of recycling to earn any. With cleaning products, Terracycle says you can send off 'any size' of shipment and get two points per item. But for other categories, you'll need 100s of items before you can earn any points. For example:

  • Baby food pouches. Shipments must be 5kg or over to earn any points (Terracycle says this is about 550 pouches). It's two points per pouch, so 5kg = 1,100-ish points.

  • Crisp packets. Shipments must be 2kg or over to earn any points (about 400 packets). It's two points per packet, so 2kg = 800-ish points.

You'll need to rack up a minimum of 1,000 points (£10) to redeem them for a charity donation. You may want to set up a drop-off point or club together with friends and neighbours if you want your points to really add up.

Let us know how you get on

Terracycle's been operating in the UK for a number of years, but this is the first time we've covered its recycling scheme on So please let us know any feedback you have in the comments below.

Some of our forumites have already been testing it out. For example, arbrighton has been busy recycling coffee pods:

They have local(ish) drop-off points where you can take them – we collect a big box full and go three or four times a year.

And Laura_Elsewhere has been sending off her biscuit wrappers:

My biscuit addiction caused me to discover Terracycle – they've teamed up with the Scottish-sounding biscuit manufacturer to provide a recycling service for all sweet biscuit wrappers.